Today is National Golden Frog Day! The Golden Frog, a cultural and ecological icon of Panama, was the inspiration behind Kissing Frogs. This little guy is among several hundred species of frogs that are currently going extinct. Now no longer found in the wild, the Golden Frog can only be seen in zoos and conservation centres, like the one in El Valle, where the characters of the book volunteer and where I spent several weeks researching and writing the book.
In honour of today I’m posting a few excerpts from the book below. I hope you enjoy and don’t forget about the frogs!
“Bienvenidos a Villa Paraíso.” Hector pulls into the property and parks. “Welcome to Paradise Villas.”
We tumble out of the van and behold an Eden-like utopia. Palm trees dot immaculate grounds, swaying gently beside a crystal-blue pool. Exotic birds fly between banana trees and butterflies flit among vibrant flowers. Colorful hammocks swing under a large open-air hut thing that promises shade and cool breezes. Three villas stand out on the lush property, their exterior stonework bringing to mind castles from mythical lands.
It’s like something out of a tropical fairy tale.
“Wow,” I say, despite myself. Nice prison.
“Mi casa es su casa,” Hector says. “Please do not worry about the bags. Enrique and I will get them.”
“Nonsense,” Mr. A. says, wiping his forearm against his face, scalp glistening between thinning red spikes. “Guys and gals, grab your stuff.”
Enrique already has the back doors open and is unloading our luggage as we go to give him a hand. He picks up my backpack and when I reach out to grab it, he deposits the giant bag in my grasp. Our hands touch for the briefest second. A current runs up my arm and I look into the eyes “color of swirled honey and chocolate. One of them winks.
“Hola,” he says, grinning. “Buenos días.”
“Buenos días,” I repeat. Wow. This guy is even better looking than Miles.
“Welcome to Panama.”
“Thank you. I mean, gracias.”
“Gracias,” I repeat again, a little dazed and suddenly aware the van ride has done nothing for my appearance. My hands go automatically to my pony and slide the elastic down. Subtly, I smooth my wrinkly T-shirt but refrain from sniffing my armpits this time.
“So, you are American?” Enrique raises a dark eyebrow, his voice low and husky.
“Yes, well, half. My father is American, my mother is Canadian, so I guess I’m both, but I live in the States. I go to Canada lots though. My grandparents live there and the rest of my mom’s family: aunts, uncles, cousins…”
Shut up, Jess.
“We live close to the border.” That last one slips out.
“Can you spare us your life story?” Chrissy says behind me. I move out of the way and she gives me another of her scathing looks before turning toward Enrique with a dazzling smile.”
Walking over to Harp and Juan who are standing by the pool, I feel dizzy from the heat. Or maybe it’s from talking to one of the best-looking guys I’ve ever seen. I wonder how Miles would react if he saw Enrique. Despite his proposition, he does not share well with others. Obviously he doesn’t think anyone in the conservation club poses a real threat or he never would have said what he did.
“The Chytrid fungus is basically wiping them out,” Juan is saying to Harp, I hadn’t noticed how short he was while in the van, maybe an inch taller than my five-three frame.
“Who’s covered in fungus?” My eyes go automatically to Travis, who’s getting his bag from Enrique. I’m highly suspicious of this whole nice act.
“The frogs,” Juan says as he adjusts his glasses, his brown eyes serious. “We’re losing hundreds of species every day. It’s the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs.”
“Would a world without frogs be so bad?” I frown down at my fingernails; my polish is starting to chip. I look up. “I mean, I certainly don’t miss having T. rex around.” They look at me, mouths agape, like I’ve just stomped on one of the things. Travis and Shaggy come up behind me with their bags, overhearing my comment.
“Hey, Princess,” Travis says, “you do know you’re here with the conservation club?” He pokes his finger into my side and arches an eyebrow. I tilt my head up to glare at him. When did he get so tall? Chrissy and Kiki join us.
“Yeah, some of us actually worked our asses off to be here,” Chrissy says, taking a menacing step toward me. “Do you know how many freaking bake sales we had?”
“Dude, not to mention car washes,” Shaggy says. He’s hunched over, like he doesn’t want any credit for the six feet he’s almost at.
“Yeah.” Kiki sets her bag down and crosses her arms. “We didn’t just luck into a free trip for extra credit.” With the pool behind me, there’s nowhere to go. Several pairs of eyes laser into me as I’m surrounded. Taking a step backwards, my foot hits nothing but air and I know I’m about to fall into the water.
We continue our tour and see more birds. Colorful toucans, parrots, and peacocks that caw, whistle, and strut. Rows of plants and flowers are everywhere, giving the impression that El Nispero is more elaborate garden paradise than zoo.
Lola reads my mind. “We have a plant nursery as well as a small zoo.” She turns and smiles, holding Mr. A.’s gaze. “And, of course, there’s the conservation center and our beautiful little frogs.” We reach the building housing the hallowed creatures. The center itself is almost anti-climactic after hearing how supposedly important the frogs are. Three sides are bare cement, resembling a bunker. Its only redeeming feature is a vibrant mural painted on the front, depicting the mountain forests of El Valle, waterfalls, and several species of frog frolicking in rivers and lounging on lily pads. “It is so good of you to come to help us keep up the place,” Lola repeats. “It is always nice to have an extra set of hands.”
“Well you have eighteen of them.” Mr. A. “holds his up. “I mean eighteen hands, so nine sets,” he corrects himself. Lola giggles like it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard, her laughter tinkling like bells in the wind. Travis rolls his eyes good-naturedly and winks at me. I hide a smile so he doesn’t think it’s for him. Because it’s not. Mr. A. is just hilarious right now. We follow them inside the center. It’s clean and cool, the air tinged with bleach. I don’t know what I expected but the habitats actually look decent, each terrarium resembling a mini rain forest.
“The center is sponsored by several zoos around the world, and our partnerships have allowed us to rescue many of our frogs,” Lola says. “Most are critically endangered, and some, like the golden frog, are thought to be extinct in the wild.”
“That’s the step before an animal is extinct and gone forever,” Harp says softly in my ear. Everyone’s whispering, like we’re in some sanctuary. We walk around, looking at the different species. It hits me that I’m staring at some of the last survivors of their kind. They’re not as disgusting as I imagined they’d be. Harp was right; some are “even kind of cute, coming in all colors of the rainbow. I read the different names. There are tiny florescent green, neon blue, and midnight black poison-dart frogs. Slightly bigger is a horned marsupial, lime green with eyes that bulge from the sides of his head, making him look wise and quizzical at the same time. Miniature red harlequin frogs, the size of a thumb, hop around, blissfully ignoring the giants looming over their pimped-out homes. Signs list every species as critically endangered, the primary cause being the chytrid fungus Juan mentioned. Other causes listed are habitat loss and pollution.
Lola walks up to where I’m standing by the harlequin frogs. “We’ve lost over two-thirds of this species,” she says. “That is why we need places to keep and study the frogs that remain. There is still so much we don’t know about them.”
“How did the disease get so out of control?” I ask, looking at her.
“Some think that changing air and water temperatures caused by global warming allow the fungus to thrive and spread very quickly.”
“There’s no cure?”
“It is very hard to save a frog in the wild once it has chytrid.” She rests her fingertips lightly on the glass. “Their skin is like their lungs, thin and extremely sensitive to even the smallest change in the environment, making it very susceptible to the fungus.”
Juan walks up to us, holding a very small, very expensive-looking camcorder.
“Where’d you get that?” I ask.
“Mr. A.,” he says. “The club is making a documentary to spread the word about the frogs. We’re calling it A Ribbeting Cause.” He zooms in on the glass. “I know you have your research paper, but do you want to help out?”
“Sure,” I say, surprising myself.
“Cool,” Juan says, “and if you need to borrow it to record stuff for your paper just let me know.”
“Thanks,” I say, touched by his generosity.
“That is wonderful,” Lola says. “Most people don’t realize how important frogs are to biodiversity. We are just now discovering their uses for medicines and cures for things like cancer and AIDS.”
“And because they’re not as cuddly as other endangered species, most people don’t pay them any attention,” Juan says.
“Sí,” Lola says, “but luckily this one over here has become a symbol for the whole species.” She walks up to the largest exhibit that dominates the entire middle of the room. We follow, about to get our first glimpse of Panama’s golden frog.